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Fluorescence and flotsam

Highlights from Heather Galbraith’s diary of the 55th Venice Biennale


<P data-associrn="1384882"></P> <P>Arriving into Venice on the bus from the airport into Piazzale Roma, you hit a convergence of road, railv and water-based modes of transport. You realise quickly that your normal orientation compass needs to shift. Heading to a back canal, we hop on a speedy <EM>vaporetto</EM> (water bus) to San Basilio, followed by a short walk to the two apartments in Dorsoduro where a number of the NZ at Venice team are staying. This is a new neck of the woods to me, very tranquil. The view across the canal to walled gardens is tantalising. </P> <P data-associrn="1385553"></P> <P>Following a trip to the local supermarket and getting to grips with the Mondrian-themed kitchen, I unpack. I decide to get some sleep to be ready for an early start. We have four days until the official start of the <EM>vernissage</EM> (private view). </P> <P>The Biennale is vast and spreads throughout the city of islands. To give you a sense of scale, in 2013, the curated Biennale exhibition <EM>Il Palazzo Enciclopedico</EM> (The Encyclopedic Palace), housed across the Giardini (gardens) and the Arsenale (naval arsenal), includes work by 150 artists from 37 countries. There are 88 national pavilions, including 10 first-timers, and 47 collateral events which test all your powers of navigation as they are located in a plethora of venues peppering major and minor streets and canals. In addition there is a raft of pop-up renegade exhibitions, performances, and events, and august private museum or foundation exhibitions, which are often major or ambitious shows in themselves. </P> <P><STRONG>Bill Culbert’s <EM>Front door out back </EM></STRONG></P> <P>In the morning I set off on the 25-minute walk to the venue, which culminates in a stroll across Piazza San Marco. I clock that there is a Manet show on at the Doge's Palace. I make a note to self . . . Once through San Marco I hang a left, cross a couple of bridges, and arrive at the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà. Walking up the side passageway I enter into a hive of activity. </P> <P>Artist Bill Culbert gives me the hugest hug and turns on the fluorescent tubes for the massive floor work in the central <EM>cavana</EM> space. The show is nearly ready. Watching video footage of the installation shot by Bill’s daughter Colette Culbert, I get a sense of how hard graft and very careful spatial decision-making have combined to make this arresting suite of works that are suspended and spill through the eight different chambers of the venue.</P> <P data-associrn="1384891"></P> <P data-associrn="1384880"></P> <P><EM>Daylight flotsam Venice</EM> and <EM>Level</EM> have a fascinating relationship with one another. The smattering of plastic bottles standing up in <EM>Daylight flotsam Venice</EM> creates the illusion that the carpet of objects and tubes are floating on tensile surface, rather than resting on the terracotta tiles. This riffs off the consistent water level within the glass <EM>bonbonnes</EM> of <EM>Level</EM>. Bill is delighted to show me the optical illusion you get standing almost directly under <EM>Level</EM>: any passing speedboat or gondola is turned upside down and reversed in the bulbous rounds of each vessel. </P> <P>From there I move back through the small dog-leg corridor past <EM>Strait</EM>, a work made of new Anchor 'lightproof' milk bottles, pierced by a single fluorescent tube. Pretty true to their name, the bottles themselves don't allow much of the inner light to penetrate their slick white exteriors, but the jewel-like glowing blue and green bottle tops are an unexpected joy.</P> <P data-associrn="1384881"></P> <P>While seeing <EM>Strait</EM> makes me chuckle, the next reveal brings tears to my eyes. As I walk into the back end of the Vivaldi corridor, which leads straight down to the Riva degli Schiavoni and the main Venetian lagoon, I am stopped in my tracks by two works, <EM>Bebop</EM> and <EM>Drop</EM>, airborne tumbles of mid-century Formica-clad tables and chairs. The humble yet pivotal objects of <EM>Bebop</EM>, at the heart of so many homes and so familiar, are released from their utility, each hung from wires to give the illusion they are suspended by some magic force of light. Conceptually, the work nods to the many allegories and narrative depictions in Venetian ceiling frescoes and panel paintings, but Bill's characters are far more domestic, less adorned. While not ornate, they are charged with emotion and give a moving insight into being human.</P> <P data-associrn="1384878"></P> <P>The vertical emphasis of <EM>Drop</EM>, in the double-height entrance vestibule nearest the lagoon, references the lavish glass chandeliers which are a common sight when you are gaze into <EM>palazzo</EM> (mansions) from <EM>vaporetto</EM>. These objects are both light source and delicious, detailed folly. <EM>Drop</EM> is more puritan in its form, but standing underneath it you are drawn into an encounter that is wondrous. I feel oddly calm and uplifted by this tumble of objects and light. </P> <P data-associrn="1384888"></P> <P>On Tuesday morning, the beginning of the <EM>vernissage</EM>, a group of patrons and the team meet at the front of the venue at 6.30 a.m. for the blessing of the space and the work. Accompanied by a karakia, we make our way through the building. Seeing Bill Culbert’s work reach an audience of writers, journalists, museum and gallery professionals, artists, collectors and art fans, along with the raft of new conversations about New Zealand art practice that take place during the <EM>vernnisage</EM>, is incredibly rewarding and exciting. </P> <P><STRONG>Perusing the pavilions</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1385548"></P> <P>For the rest of the day, curator Justin Paton and I have to get to the Giardini to plan our first patrons tour. My socks are well and truly blown off by Massimiliano Gioni’s curated exhibition, an expansive yet tightly selected and judiciously installed show. Making a highlights cut is going to be challenging. Then there is Jeremy Deller’s strong showing in the British pavilion and Ai Weiwei in the German pavilion. I am quite intrigued by Sarah Sze’s sprawling installation works that occupy the interior rooms of the US pavilion, and permeate walls and overtake the roof. I have plenty plotted for the tour. </P> <P data-associrn="1385554"></P> <P data-associrn="1385556"></P> <P>On Wednesday, an excellent turnout of patrons. We queue along with many hundreds of folk at the gates to the Giardini. The highlights for my group include the dramatic and unsettling work by Belinde De Bruyckere, and the mercurial material play of Mark Manders sculptures. Within the curated show we look at large drawings of Rudolf Steiner counterpointed by a performance piece by Tino Sehgal (who is later awarded the Golden Lion prize for an individual artist within the curated pavilion), sculptures by London-based Sarah Lucas within the Carlo Scarpa-designed garden courtyard, and an incredible work by Swiss collaborative duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, <EM>Suddenly this overview</EM> (1981-2012), a collection of over 200 small unfired clay sculptures that range from poetic, to profound, through to laugh-out-loud ludicrous. </P> <P><EM>Pasolini</EM> (1985) is two forged steel block sculptures by Richard Serra alongside a suite of large paintings of a dark, tumultuous sea by Thiery De Cordier. This was a potent pairing of objects of immense weight with images conveying intense velocity. Another highlight were back-to-back rooms of senior figures Maria Lassnig and Marisa Merz, both of whom were awarded Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement within the Biennale. </P> <P>After a speedy lunch Justin and I set off to the Arsenale to prepare for the next tour. The show impresses straight from the start, with a sequence of groups of works addressing ideas of how knowledge can be ordered and imaged. As with the Giardini, there are many works by people who have not undergone any traditional art training and who often get labelled as ‘outsider’ or ‘naïve’ or ‘folk’ artists. There are surprises and revelations aplenty. </P> <P>Personal highlights from the Arsenale are the drawings of Yüksel Arslan: a curious mix of biological taxonomies, an exploration of aspects of philosophy, events in Turkish history, and intimate moments from the artist’s life. These are joined by R Crumb’s graphic novel rendering of the entire book of Genesis – 207 black and white drawings hung in a line around a room, including a giant horseshoe-shaped wall, which makes a chamber on the reverse side, housing vitrines of extraordinary clay creatures made by Shinichi Sawada from Japan. Sawada has severe autism and barely speaks, but makes figures and masks, including dragons and demons, covered with hundreds of hand-made clay spikes. They form the characters of a highly individual, internalised world. They were knockout. </P> <P>Moving through the spaces, you come across a show within the show curated by artist Cindy Sherman. The works explore human experience through figuration and have much to say about familial and sexual relationships, impulses of desire, and artists exploring self-portraiture, all mixed with visual and popular culture. The show reeks of fascination, fixation and compulsion, and is idiosyncratic and exhilarating.</P> <P data-associrn="1385550"></P> <P>Just around the corner is a strong work by Simon Denny, the first New Zealand artist to be included in the curated exhibition at the Biennale. <EM>Analogue broadcasting hardware compression </EM>(2013) is a cool testament to the rapid speed of technological change, of how visual images are broadcast and harnessed in our homes (and increasingly through mobile devices), and the ecological challenges obsolescence throws up. </P> <P>Two rooms down is a breathtaking presentation of <EM>Apollo’s ecstasy</EM> (1990) by Walter De Maria. Twenty diagonal rows of solid polished bronze rods form an ordered structure, sitting within a space demarcated by heavy wooden pillars. There is a delicate balance at play here, with generous space around the floor work, and natural light flooding in. The impact is both potent and oddly serene. </P> <P><STRONG>Opening shebang </STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1385546"></P> <P>We are all lined up, shoes polished and ready to welcome the 300-plus guests expected for the opening of Bill Culbert‘s <EM>Front door out back</EM>. This is the big one. Guests from New Zealand and all over the world are about to make their way through the doors off Riva degli Schiavoni to first encounter his works. The turnout is huge. The place soon fills up and there are so many familiar faces.</P> <P>Speeches start promptly with a karakia and welcome. The speech by Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, is so generous and eloquent that I think I am not the only person in the crowd who is getting misty in the eyes.</P> <P>We follow this with a rousing rendition of ‘Te Aroha’, joined in voice by many New Zealanders. Bill is incredibly moved by the heartfelt sentiments shared by all of the speakers, and many hankies are pulled from pockets and sleeves to mop up little tears of joy. This brings the formal elements of the proceedings to a close, and everyone gets to breathe out and enjoy the evening. </P> <P><STRONG>The <EM>vernissage </EM>comes to a close </STRONG></P> <P>Friday sees our final patrons tour at our own venue where Justin and curator Aaron Kreisler talk about Bill’s show and his collaborations with artist Ralph Hotere. From there we visit Ai Weiwei’s <EM>S.A.C.R.E.D</EM>. In the Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, the artist has created large metal box forms within which, visible through small windows and peep holes, dioramas document the artist’s incarceration in China. We move to the Mexican pavilion. Ariel Guzik’s <EM>Cordiox</EM> is an extraordinary sound work in the crumbling former church of San Lorenzo. A 4-metre high machine with high-tension strings and a quartz crystal central cylinder reads the reverberations of the interior, arriving at a sonic imprint of the space. A subtle and entrancing work. </P> <P>From here we head across the Accademia bridge to find a collateral event by Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis. <EM>A remote whisper</EM> is one to see alongside Bill’s project as both artists use similar elements and building blocks, including the fluorescent tube, but to very different effect. </P> <P>Over Saturday and Sunday, amidst a string of farewells for team members and patrons, we are still averaging 2,000 visitors a day through Bill’s show, including a healthy dose of New Zealanders on holiday who are thrilled to stumble across this project ‘from home’ amidst the rich Venetian strata of history. </P> <P>The Venice Biennale can feel a little like a bubble, especially this year where more and more footage of protests in Istanbul appears on smart phones and laptops as the <EM>vernissage</EM> rolls on. This feels an uncomfortable contrast with the revelries, but within the 55th Venice Biennale there is a wealth of work exploring more complex and conflicted aspects of the human condition, how we image and record our internal states and external relationships. Leaving this rich selection of strong and potent art work (and the teams who have made it all happen) is hard, but we know it will all happen again anew in two years, which makes leaving that little bit easier. </P>
Bill Culbert, &lt;EM&gt;Daylight flotsam Venice&lt;/EM&gt; (reflected) and &lt;EM&gt;Level&lt;/EM&gt;, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert, Daylight flotsam Venice (reflected) and Level, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Mondrian-themed kitchen in apartment on Dorsoduro, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Mondrian-themed kitchen in apartment on Dorsoduro, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Bill Culbert, &lt;EM&gt;Daylight flotsam Venice&lt;/EM&gt; and &lt;EM&gt;Level&lt;/EM&gt;, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert, Daylight flotsam Venice and Level, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert, &lt;EM&gt;Level&lt;/EM&gt;, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert, Level, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert, &lt;EM&gt;Drop&lt;/EM&gt;, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert, Drop, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert, &lt;EM&gt;Strait&lt;/EM&gt;, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert, Strait, photograph by Jennifer French, 2013

Bill Culbert being interviewed during media preview, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Bill Culbert being interviewed during media preview, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Sarah Sze Triple Point 2013 United States of America pavilion, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Sarah Sze Triple Point 2013 United States of America pavilion, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Patrons&#39; tour, Giardini, led by Justin Paton and Heather Galbraith, photograph by Hamish Coney, 2013

Patrons' tour, Giardini, led by Justin Paton and Heather Galbraith, photograph by Hamish Coney, 2013

Patrons&#39; tour, showing Sarah Lucas installation in the Carlo Scarpa garden, Giardini, photograph by Hamish Coney, 2013

Patrons' tour, showing Sarah Lucas installation in the Carlo Scarpa garden, Giardini, photograph by Hamish Coney, 2013

Simon Denny, &lt;EM&gt;Analogue broadcasting hardware compression&lt;/EM&gt;, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Simon Denny, Analogue broadcasting hardware compression, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Haniko Te Kurapa leading the blessing of the New Zealand pavilion, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013

Haniko Te Kurapa leading the blessing of the New Zealand pavilion, photograph by Heather Galbraith, 2013